Going to Extremes to Improve Human Health
EUGENE — A new research tool will allow University of Oregon scientists to replicate an extreme range of environmental conditions in their quest to test and understand the human body’s response to everyday stresses.
The instrument, called an environmental chamber, is a 12-foot-square room capable of simulating altitude up to 18,000 feet, holding temperature constant at a set point between 14 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and controlling humidity anywhere from 10 to 95 percent. The chamber is so finely tuned that it can swing from the coldest to hottest setting in 30 minutes.
“The presence of the environmental chamber at the University of Oregon will assure the next generation of researchers is well versed in both cutting-edge molecular methods and in traditional integrative, exercise, and environmental physiology.” said John Halliwill, an assistant professor of human physiology. His research includes a special focus on sleep apnea which can set the stage for high blood pressure.
Halliwill, who also studies factors responsible for changes in blood flow to various regions of the body, co-directs the university’s Exercise and Environmental Physiology Laboratories with Chris Minson, an associate professor of human physiology.
Minson said the chamber fast-tracks the university’s clinical research program in cardiology, a partnership with PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene. About 40 physicians volunteer their expertise by teaching and assisting with research in the human physiology labs.
“The chamber allows us to monitor minute changes in the vascular and respiratory systems of subjects both at rest and when exercising,” Minson explained. “It’s already opening up new realms for our research mission.”
One example of the chamber’s potential is enhancing researchers’ ability to explore fatigue. “Physical and mental fatigue may not be commonly perceived as work hazards, but fatigue often is a fundamental cause of accidents and injuries,” Minson said.
Minson’s work, which pertains to a range of disease conditions such as diabetes, involves uncovering the neural and vascular interactions in the skin during environmental heat stress. In the effort to understand why young women are more susceptible to fainting than men, he also studies how estrogen and progesterone influence blood pressure regulation.
Minson is the winner of a 2005 American Physiology Society’s Outstanding Young Investigator Award (his second since 2000) and a similar national honor conferred in 2002 by the American College of Sports Medicine.
In addition to their well-established research programs, Halliwill and Minson share a strong commitment to training future researchers in environmental physiology. Currently, about 40 graduate students are enrolled in the Department of Human Physiology, which also has roughly 400 undergraduate majors. (The department, previously known as Exercise and Movement Science, underwent a name change in July 2004.)
“In this current day of rapid discovery in genetics and cellular biology, it is more important than ever that some attention be focused on the research-training of individuals who will make sense of the explosion of available information by connecting these discoveries to integrative physiological functions in the intact human being,” Halliwill said.
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